This spring, word that Colson Whitehead was working on a zombie story spread through literary circles faster than a flesh-eating super virus. It sounded like another gift from the gods of Halloween, right up there with Justin Cronin’s decision to stop writing lovely, unread novels and give us a bang-up vampire saga .
Of course, we should have known that Whitehead, the 41-year-old MacArthur Foundation “genius,” wouldn’t do the zombie walk in lock step with George Romero, but what’s most surprising about “Zone One” is how subtly he reanimates those old body parts for a post-9/11 world. Although the ambling, rotting hordes are still here, this is a night of the living dead lit by melancholy and nostalgia rather than violence and terror. Horror fans hungry for new thrills may find too little meat on these bones — stick with AMC’s “The Walking Dead” for that — but now that zombies have infected everyone from Jane Austen to the above-average folks at Lake Wobegon, perhaps quieter reflection is in order. (Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted helpful advice for fighting zombie infection.) Readers who wouldn’t ordinarily creep into a novel festooned with putrid flesh might be lured by this certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry.
The story takes place over a weekend in Manhattan; indeed, “Zone One,” a dark paean to the Big Apple, is an undead version of Whitehead’s elegant essay collection, “The Colossus of New York.” It starts, appropriately, with a young man’s fond memory of going into the city with his family to visit an uncle who had all the hottest tech and all the hottest girls. Staring out a high-rise window, the boy used to watch churning buildings rise and collide, wave upon wave: “In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel.”
But now that vibrant commercial world is a ghost of itself, the future looks like a bloodstain and “hope is a gateway drug.” About a year before the novel opens, a plague ravaged the planet, turning almost everyone into inexorable, flesh-starved monsters whom Whitehead describes evocatively as “the angry dead, the ruthless chaos of existence made flesh.” Our hero is a survivor nicknamed Mark Spitz, who works on a cleanup crew in a portion of the city — Zone One — recently pacified and sealed off by the Marines. As part of the reconstruction initiative, Mark and his buddies — “completely inured to the agenda of catastrophe” — are assigned to move through New York office buildings shooting the heads off “stragglers.” These are nonviolent zombies, more poignant than scary, caught in some pathetic loop of their former lives: waiting for the phone to ring, restocking a shelf, lifting and closing the hood of a photocopier. In rare moments of grandiosity, Mark thinks of himself as “an angel of death ushering these things on their stalled journey from this sphere.” Other times, as when he shoots a “brain-wiped wretch standing at the fry station of a big hamburger chain,” he’s disgusted that anyone, “out of the abundance of a life, would choose fry duty.”
That grim humor slithers through most of this novel, along with touches of Whitehead’s topical satire: Even when their lips are eaten off, New Yorkers are still cursing the traffic. As the “necrotic multitudes” descend on one doomed office, a disciplined administrator looks around his desk for the proper form to record a casualty. The remnants of a national government holed up in Buffalo work on “rebranding survival” along the lines of President George W. Bush’s “go shopping” response to Sept. 11. And the whole industry of corporate-sponsored optimism — profiteering even in the final moments of life on Earth — gets flayed in these wry pages.
The climate of sorrow makes some of this a fairly mirthless parody. After Gary Shteyngart’s exuberant satire of consumer culture in the dystopian future of “Super Sad True Love Story,” Whitehead’s riffs on the superficiality of social media or the ubiquity of Starbucks seem tired. Mark’s soul-weariness infects the tone and pace of the novel, too, which offers more eulogy than suspense. Whitehead borrows bloody chunks from Romero’s gore fest, but he’s stingy with the thrills. There are only a couple of good zombie battle scenes to get the heart pumping. The spine-tingling progression we expect is repeatedly interrupted by the narrator’s aimless chronology and memories of Mark’s previous life. Some of these flashbacks are particularly effective, such as the night Mark walked into his parents’ bedroom. (Hint: Freud’s primal scene is transformed into a zombie primal scream.) But other sections of the novel seem aimless. Whitehead’s previous book, the autobiographical “Sag Harbor,” didn’t have much momentum either, but it sparked with linguistic energy and its chapters worked charmingly as short stories. The pieces of “Zone One,” alas, are not so animated. There are — forgive me — too many dead spots.
A more serious problem may be the blandness of our anti-Olympian hero, Mark, “a mediocre man, [who] led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality.” Given that the novel is overrun by zombies, who are necessarily personality-impaired, it’d be nice to have a hero who wasn’t quite so blank and colorless. That’s an especially odd portrayal given that, in 1968, Romero boldly cast Duane Jones, an African American, in the center of a white mob out to devour him, and many scenes in “Night of the Living Dead” visually emphasized the racial dimension of his ordeal. Mark is also a young black man, but strangely that element of his identity is bleached away in this novel, as though colorblindness and zombie-ism came to America at the same moment.
But my reluctant disappointments were burned away by the last section, “Sunday.” Everything comes to life in this perfectly paced, horrific, 40-page finale shot through with grim comedy and desolate wisdom about the modern age in all its poisonous, contaminating rage. It’s a remarkable episode, drenched in the matinee carnage of classic horror but elevated by the power of Whitehead’s prose to the level of those other ash-covered nightmares imagined by T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cormac McCarthy. Here the all-consuming maw of the city reaches its apotheosis, luring and destroying. In this great melting pot, flesh is actually melting, but still they come, by the thousands, moaning what this island has told every hopeful visitor since the Dutch arrived 400 years ago: “I am going to eat you up.”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday. 250 pp. $25.95